Saving health while typing

Protection: The right keyboard can protect you from injury.

January 04, 1999|By Phillip Robinson | Phillip Robinson,knight ridder/tribune

If you spend a lot of time in front of a computer, an ergonomic keyboard can help protect your health.

They don't come as standard equipment with any computers I know of, but you can buy one separately for $50 to $200 and easily substitute it for your current keyboard.

Ergonomic keyboards have keys that are supposedly easier to type upon. They enlarge frequently used keys such as Enter and Backspace. They position the keys to put them within the natural reach of your fingers, which, after all, aren't all the same length, size, or strength, and which curve in subtly different ways. They ``sculpt'' key tops to fit your fingertips nicely.

They can ``tent'' the keyboard so that it is higher in the middle, and add a wrist rest area so you don't have to dangle your typers in midair for hours at a time. They can even ``split'' the keyboard into a set of left-side keys and a set of right-side keys. This doesn't force the left arm and right arm to aim the same direction, but allows them to come in from their natural angles.

The design goal is to make typing - more specifically, hours and hours and hours of typing - less damaging to your hands and wrists. The goal is to avoid Repetitive Strain Injury, or RSI. The most common form of typing RSI is carpal tunnel syndrome, an inflammation of tendons and nerves in the hand and wrist that can be painful and disabling.

Not everyone is equally susceptible to carpal tunnel. If you and I type for thousands of hours, I may suffer while you don't. But there's no way to know in advance how vulnerable you are.

To avoid the potential disaster of RSI and carpal tunnel, should every computer user have an ergonomic keyboard?

No, because there's plenty you can do about ergonomics without spending that $50 to $200 on a keyboard.

First, don't type all the time. Take breaks, say every half-hour.

Next, don't hit the keys so hard. It isn't a mechanical typewriter. Often, we bang when we don't need to, perhaps because of the impression that furious whacking might speed the computer. It won't.

When you're buying a computer, give the keyboard a try to see how hard the keys are to press. If you're a fast typist, you might lean toward a keyboard with a light touch. But too light might irk you by causing too many "I didn't mean to type that" mistakes. Key "feel" is a very personal thing. Listening to comments about keyboards is like listening to wine tasters, with vague adjectives such as "spongy" attracting some and repelling others.

If you're left-handed, look for a keyboard with dual ALT, SHIFT and CTRL keys so there's a set on each side of the keyboard.

Things you can do before buying a keyboard: Check your posture and position. Not everyone will want precisely the same setup, but these are generally accepted to be best: forearms parallel to the floor, wrists and hands in line, wrists relaxed.

You can do a lot of that just by sitting up. But you may want to consider a better chair, or a footrest for one of your feet - only one, no kidding - or a keyboard tray or drawer. That last item sells for about $25 and slips the keyboard down two or three inches below typical desk height of 29 inches, where it more comfortably fits the average typist. Some trays also let you tilt and swivel the keyboard.

On Windows and Macintosh computers, you have Control Panel software for changing settings such as keyboard repeat rate. The right setting can reduce your need to hit or shove the keys.

Next, look for adjustable legs on the bottom of your keyboard. Most have these. You can pop them out to incline the keyboard toward you, which some people find more comfortable. Some ergonomic keyboards ncline the keys the other way. I'm not sure which is best, so it's nice to have the choice.

Then there's the question of a wrist rest, an area between you and the keys that your wrists - or more accurately, the heels of your hands - can sit upon. Some ergonomic keyboards have one built in. I find one quite comfortable when I'm typing a little, reading a little, and typing a little. But some RSI experts believe that resting your wrists is a bad thing, that your hands ought to be held aloft at the proper angle.

If you do want to try resting, put something soft and flat in front of your keyboard, something about as thick as the keyboard's front edge. I've used small towels. I've also used $10 official wrist-rest pads. My favorites are from Kensington, address below, but there are lots of makers and generic rests are the cheapest.

If you've made all the free changes and if you're still worried about carpal tunnel, here are some current choices in ergonomic keyboards:

Microsoft's Natural Keyboard Elite (800-426-9400, www.microsoft.com, $65) won't split left half from right but it does angle those halves and breaks into a more comfortable layout. The keyboard has a built-in palm rest and large keys.

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